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Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con):
The point that I wish to raise will, I hope, be of concern to Mr. Speaker as well as every other Member of the House, and particularly the Leader of the House. The East Kent health authority has received a request from the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 for disclosure of all correspondence between Members of Parliament and the health authority. That is a fishing expedition, but we have now discovered that that correspondence is not covered by parliamentary privilege. It relates, of course, to specific and personal concerns expressed by individual constituents. Every Member of Parliament representing east Kent is most
concerned. The reply has to be given by Monday, and the only way to delay it is for the Leader of the House immediately to instigate a review. That would give us time to look into the matter again.
Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the subject, and of course I will give him every assistance, because the matter touches on parliamentary privilege. I should just say that I was the Minister who had the unenviable task of taking the Freedom of Information Bill through its stages in the House, and we were asked by hon. Members on all sides to go further, rather than to provide what I thought were sensible protections, on requests for information, including requests from Parliament. However, the only people who supported those sensible restrictions were my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner), and myself, on the Treasury Bench. I think that many hon. Members on both sides of the House now rue the day when the House decidedin the end, we had to accept its wishthat extensive privilege should be given to inquiries, without properly balancing the rights of those who held the information. Of course I will follow the matter up, and I will do so in consultation with Mr. Speaker and the Clerk of the House.
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): If I had had the opportunity I would have given a warm welcome to the local government White Paper. However, given the interest both inside and outside the House in the future of local government, may I echo the request from my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Patrick Hall) for an early debate on the issue? We could contrast the Governments policy of trusting local government with the policy of the Conservative Government of trying to take over local government. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to make a statement confirming that she will introduce a properly joined-up policy on city regions with the Secretaries of State for Transport, and for Education and Skills, to provide city regions with a package of measures and powers? Hopefully, the White Paper will not be the last word on the subject.
Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): Haringey happily provides statutory support for a high number of asylum seekers, as do other local authorities. However, funding supportfor example, for the placement of unaccompanied childrendoes not remotely meet the actual costs, so may we have a debate on the available Government grant for the provision of statutory services to asylum seekers?
I will pass on the hon. Ladys remarks to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. She talks about her constituents in Haringey and concerns about asylum seekers, but it would have been extremely helpful if the Liberal Democrat party had supported
our controls on asylum seekers on at least one occasion, rather than giving asylum seekers consistent encouragement.
Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend find time to provide a debate on the treatment of my constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Webster, who have severe learning and physical difficulties, by G. E. Money, the US company which, in the last quarter, reported a profit of $5 million? The company is trying to evict my constituents from the home in which they have lived for more than 20 years, because they have fallen behind on a loan that they arranged in 1997of only £10,000with an astonishing interest rate of 21.9 per cent. G. E. Money has taken advantage of them, and it should act in accordance with its stated intention on its website of
working with integrity and values.
Mr. Straw: I will certainly do everything I can to facilitate an Adjournment or Westminster Hall debate on that important issue, and I will pass on my hon. Friends concerns, which are widely shared across the House, to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. My hon. Friend may wish to invite the companys chief executive to the House to explain its policies, because G. E. Money claims to be a company of high status and high standing.
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): May we have an urgent debate on why seven beds have been cut from ward 4the acute medicines wardat the Princess Royal hospital in my constituency? Before the Leader of the House says something about human resources at the hospital, may I give him an up-to-date briefing? Some 200 nurses and doctors are due to be cut as well.
Mr. Straw: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will find an opportunity to raise that matter on the Adjournment. However, as he has talked about changes in the budgets for the health trusts in his Shropshire constituency, he will wish to draw to public attention the huge increase in those budgets since 1997.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op):
In the light of successive leaks over the past two weeks of the Oppositions policies on taxation and now public sector vouchers, I am surprised that the Conservatives have not called for a debate on internet security. However, may I raise the question of the Leicestershire charity, Inter Care, which collects surplus medicines, screens them professionally to check that they are not out of date or damaged, and distributes them on request to rural villages, particularly in central Africa? The Environment Agency alleges that there is a technical breach of EU waste disposal regulations, and its threat to sue has resulted in Inter Care closing down. May we have a statement from a Minister from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to explain why that ludicrous and over-zealous interpretation of EU waste regulations has denied vital medical supplies to 94 villages in seven African countries that are among the poorest on the planet? Is it not more important to
address the health care needs of thousands of African villages than to feed the self-importance of the bloated ranks of EU bureaucrats?
Mr. Straw: I think that we would all agree with that, and I am sure that the whole House shares my hon. Friends concern. Oral questions to our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will take place next Thursday. In addition, I will certainly draw my right hon. Friends full attention to what my hon. Friend has said about the need for action.
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Since last November, the Prime Minister has claimed that no one waits more than six months for an NHS operation. In fact, more than 6,000 people are waiting more than six months for an NHS operation, and that does not include Scotland or Wales. The Prime Minister appears to think that he is above the regulations that apply to other Ministers and Members. Will the Leader of the House investigate the matter, and find a mechanism so that those statements can be corrected in next weeks business?
Mr. Straw: I am astonished that the hon. Gentleman who, I assume, supported the Conservative party when it was in government, should dare to raise the issue of waiting lists, which have dropped by more than 382,600. Virtually no one waits more than six months, and the number of six-month waits has gone down by 284,000 since 1997. Our record is so good that we have no interest whatsoever in putting inaccurate figures before the House. Of course, I will ensure that we provide the most accurate figures available.
Mrs. Siân C. James (Swansea, East) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on child pornography? I recently received a letter from the PICT union, which is based in Japan. My staff and I were horrified by the hard-core child pornography cartoons and the list of websites that allow access to child porn that it enclosed. I wrote to the Home Office about the matter, and I received a reply from the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), who provided me with advice and support. The material has been passed to the police, but may we have debate about child pornography so that we can combat the distribution of such material and its accessibility on the internet?
Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend is right to raise that matter, which is of profound concern to everyone in the country. The availability of that filth is much greater these days, precisely because of the internet. She was told by our hon. Friend the Under-Secretary about the action that has been taken by the Home Office and the Serious Organised Crime Agency. Of course, I will do what I can to help her secure a debate, probably on the Adjournment or in Westminster Hall, on the matter.
Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP):
May we have a statement or a debate soon on the decision by the Northern Ireland Office to withdraw planning notices from the three main Northern Ireland newspapersthe Belfast Telegraph, the Belfast News and The Irish News? Ordinary people in Northern
Ireland will be deprived of information about forthcoming planning applications, including major applications, that will have an impact on them. That is a scandalous lack of transparency and openness, so the papers have taken legal action. The Governments approach of preventing the public from finding out about major planning applications is not right, as there should be as much openness and transparency as possible. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that we have a debate on that important subject?
Mr. Straw: I am unsighted on the issue, but I suspect that the explanation is slightly more complicated than the hon. Gentleman suggested, and that such information is now available on the internet. In any event, I will pass on his concerns to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and ensure that he writes to the hon. Gentleman.
Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): The Deputy Leader of the House recently visited a dynamic information and communications technology company in my constituency. That company is at the cutting edge of technology and works in close collaboration with Lancaster university, which has received substantial sums of money from the Government to encourage it to work with local businesses. That is good and we need to do much more of that. May we have a debate to look at how we can further encourage universities to work with local businesses?
Mr. Straw: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, who is also a near constituency neighbour. The huge increase in developments and in co-operation between universities and business over the past few years, including in Lancashire and by the university of Lancaster, has been impressive. I hope that there is an opportunity for her to raise the matter on the Adjournment or in Westminster Hall.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Will the Leader of the House shed some light on what is going to happen next Wednesday? Exactly how many separate motions relating to the House of Commons will there be on the Order Paper? Does he agree that most of the subjects are totally discreteSeptember sittings, length of speeches, European scrutiny and the sub judice rule? Does he envisage one mega-debate that will try to embrace all that, or will we have a series of structured debates with votes at the end of each one?
Mr. Straw: We will have a single opportunity for colleagues to raise issues relating to House of Commons business, on a single debate, with votes at the end. There is no right way of doing this, but that is a better way than having a series of debates, which could mean running out of time for whatever subject is regarded as the most important on the day. I am sure that there will be every opportunity for the right hon. Gentleman to catch Mr. Speakers eye and say whatever he wants to on matters relating to the administration of the House.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab):
May we have an urgent debate on freedom of religion in Pakistan and especially the plight of Christians? My friend will be
aware of the Karims, who are Catholics and live in my constituency, not far from Blackburn. They face deportation to Pakistan and they fear persecution there.
Mr. Straw: I am certainly aware of the considerable concern in Pakistan and elsewhere about the treatment of Christians and non-Muslim people, and indeed of some Shia Muslims, as well, in certain areas of Pakistan. I will pass on my hon. Friends concerns to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I am not equipped to answer my hon. Friends particular constituency issue, but I understand the concerns that he has raised.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): May I apologise for my lack of voice, Madam Deputy Speaker? May we have a debate next week on a motion to set up a Special Standing or Select Committee to inquire into the handling of the war in Afghanistan? Many of us feel that British forces were deployed without a proper assessment of risk, adequate equipment or proper provision for reinforcements. We need to know who is responsible for those failures and how best to avoid, or reduce, the risk of operational failure in Afghanistan, which Lord Inge recently spoke of.
Mr. Straw: A large part of that happened when I was Foreign Secretary. There was proper and extensive analysis of the potential risks over many months before we made a decision, in concert with our NATO partners, to increase our strength and to extend our operations to the south of the country. There used to be a need for special Select Committees to be established on matters such as this because there was no system of standing Select Committees, but since 1979 there has been. This matter seems to be a quintessential, obvious issue for inquiry by the Defence Committee or the Foreign Affairs Committee, or both.
Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): May I welcome the opportunity for a debate on Crossrail on Tuesday and seek some guidance from my right hon. Friend on the scope of that debate? He will know that the Select Committee that is considering the Crossrail Bill has expressed serious concerns about the unprecedented decision of the promoter not to act on the Committees recommendations in relation to a station at Woolwich. He will also be aware that the Committee has indicated that it may wish to make a special report to the House. May I ask for his guidance on whether it would be in order for such a report to be considered and debated if it were prepared in advance of Tuesdays debate? Will the House have an opportunity to express a view on whether the Select Committee was acting entirely within the remit given to it by the House, as I believe that it was, in recommending that there should be provision in the Bill for a station at Woolwich?
My right hon. Friend will excuse me if I say that guidance on what is in order in the House is a matter not for me, but for Mr. Speaker and any Deputy Speakers who are chairing the debate at the time. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will wish to seek the advice of the Clerk on that. We have been involved in
discussions outside the Chamber about this important matter and we all understand the strong case that he and others make for Crossrail. He will know of the support in principle of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport for this development, but as part of the Government he has to take account of the overall cost of the schemes and balance them against other competing demands for public spending.
Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): May we have a debate on standards of journalism and particularly photo-journalism? Madam Deputy Speaker, you must have been as dismayed as I was to open The Western Mail yesterday and see a picture of the Prime Minister being apprehended by two burly policemen. On closer examination, the photo turns out to be a mock-up. The Prime Minister is portrayed as a fake and a phoney, in this picture at least. Does the Leader of the House agree that it is outrageous for the Prime Minister to be portrayed in the press as something that he is not, and also for the hopes of the Opposition and perhaps some of his hon. Friends to be so improperly raised? May we have a debate so that the Prime Minister can clear his name and assure the House that he has no intention of allowing himself to be arrested?
Mr. Straw: We have great debates on crime, and law and order, to celebrate the Governments excellent record. We have 14,000 extra police officersmany of them in Walesand there have been significant cuts in crime.
Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Last night, the Deputy Leader of the House heard an impassioned plea from the RSPB, on behalf of its 1 million members, for a marine Bill in the Queens Speech. I also hear such pleas from my local Porthcawl environment trust and from the WWF. May I seek the support of the Leader of the House in ensuring that a marine Bill is included in the Queens Speech so that we can begin to tackle the issue of our marine biodiversity and the years of neglect of our marine environment?
Mr. Straw: I congratulate my hon. Friend on her strong advocacy of such a Bill. She will know, and will excuse me if I say, that I cannot anticipate what will be in the Queens Speech, but we are well aware of the priority that she and many others, on both sides of the House, attach to the measure.
John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): May we please have a debate in Government time on brain tumours? Given that they are the biggest single disease that is killing children and that survival rates have not risen in line with those for childhood leukaemia or other adult cancers, does the Leader of the House agree that it is important to debate the subject next week and, in particular, to debate the need to intensify the search for a cure, the absence of which has caused far too much suffering to far too many people for far too long?
Mr. Straw: I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. He will be aware that it is hard for me to promise a debate in Government time on that matter, but he is a skilled Member of the House and I hope that he will find opportunities to raise it.
Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): May we have a debate on the future of the UK and the consequential strengths of the House? My right hon. Friend may be aware that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) has made a virtue, and a good living, out of arguing that we should break up the UK. That good living will be increased if he is successfully elected to the Scottish Parliament. Has my right hon. Friend heard of the hon. Gentlemans latest idea? After we break up the UK, we will regroup and call it a partnership of the isles. Does my right hon. Friend share my view that that is utter hypocrisy and a waste of the Houses resources and time, and that it is playing hokey cokey with our constitution?
Mr. Straw: I certainly accept my hon. Friends dire warning about the consequences of breaking up the United Kingdom. The Scottish nationalists in the United Kingdom Parliament now say that they hope to break up the United Kingdom. I simply say to them that they will rue the day if ever that is achieved and the Scottish people, as well as those in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, will all equally suffer, because in the whole we bring to the Union much more than we do in the parts. A weakened Scotlanda very small nation inside the European Unionwould have none of the clout that we are able to wield on behalf of the Scottish people through their membership of the United Kingdom.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): May we have a statement from a Defence Minister about the BBCs decision, at a time when our servicemen are fighting in Afghanistan the most intensive campaign since the Korean war, to broadcast unalloyed Taliban propaganda, and about the likely effect that that will have on the morale of the families of the servicemen and women who are deployed in Afghanistan when they consider that the people being interviewed and given a platform have views that are well known, yet observe no normal, recognised laws or customs of war?
Mr. Straw: The whole House shares the hon. Gentlemans support and admiration for our troops in Afghanistan and other theatres. However, I happened, by chance, to see the report on the BBC to which he referred. I thought that the report was good and informative, and it was important to see the nature of those people. The difference is that in Taliban-controlled territory, anyone who steps out of line is killed, but we are a democracy, and we are fighting for democracy in Afghanistan. Although I am happy to pass on the hon. Gentlemans concerns to the director-general of the BBC, I do so in the context that the strengths of the BBC include its independence of journalism and the fact that it is not influenced directly, especially by Ministers and hon. Members.
Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend find an opportunity for the House to have a early debate on taxation, because we should have the opportunity to debate the choice between investment in public services and the savage cuts in services that are clearly favoured by some hon. Members?
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